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When a 94-year-old World War II veteran needs it most, neighbors bring tidings of comfort and joy

Merry Christmas! (Alexandre Duret-Lutz/Flickr)

Friendships come in many forms these days.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram friends you rarely, if ever, see in real life.

Childhood friends who send cards once a year. That fellow dog-walker you see around the neighborhood. Work friends. Church friends. Parents of your kids’ friends.

The hope is that among them are one or two special friends you call first when you’re having a get-together. The one you turn to after getting bad medical news, or when you’ve been dumped by your employer or partner.

Or when it’s Christmastime and there’s no family around.

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The cynical among us insist those deep and caring friendships are more aspirational than real. Who has the time? We’re too busy, too rootless. We’re buried under to-do lists, the 24-hour news cycle, social media, traffic jams, work.

But such friends are out there. Just ask Barney Baker. He’s got a neighborhood full of them.

A 94-year-old Arlington resident, Barney was married to his wife, Jacqueline, for 62 years before she died in 2014. She had been the love of his life, his business partner, mother to his daughter and his late son. His best friend.

Adventurous, they grew a business together. They traveled the world. They both had private pilots’ licenses. They built a beautiful retirement home on Lake Arlington and loved entertaining their neighbors.

It’s hard to go on after losing someone who’s been that close to you — especially if you’re entering your 10th decade. What would Barney do?

He had already lived a long and amazing life. A World War II veteran, he’d manned a .50-caliber machine gun with the 773rd Tank Destroyer Battalion as it fought through Nazi Germany during the final year of the war. The battalion was attached to the famous 90th Infantry Division, nicknamed the “Tough ’Ombres” and part of Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army.

After the war, he went to Texas Wesleyan, where in Spanish class he met Jacqueline. Barney worked a variety of jobs before finally creating his own company to do property appraisals for rapidly growing school districts and towns across the United States. His last job was reappraising the entire state of Wyoming.

Barney worked with the public. Jacqueline handled the books. To hear Barney describe it, they were a perfect match.

David Green lives three doors down from Barney. They share a slice of Lake Arlington. On sunny days, the water sparkles, drawing egrets, blue herons and the occasional seagull to its banks. On stormy days, the rain explodes across the lake like a startled flock of geese.

Like Barney, David served in the Army. He enlisted during the Vietnam War. He never made it to combat but experienced the mistreatment of soldiers by a public soured on the war.

He recalls being at an airport with another soldier who’d broken his leg in a motorcycle accident. His friend, wearing his dress green uniform, was walking on crutches when a woman yelled at him, “You should’ve died over there!”

She looked to be in her 50s and could have been one of his mother’s neighbors or friends, David said, still feeling the remark decades later like a gut punch.

Even World War II veterans didn’t give their Vietnam-era brethren a warm welcome back. Unlike World War II, Vietnam did not end in a victory, and the culture wars of the 1960s an ’70s created a rift between the generations.

But there was no awkwardness between Barney, the World War II veteran, and David, the Vietnam-era veteran when they met. “When veterans get together, they share funny stories about their service,” David said. “And that’s how it usually was with Barney.”

David’s dad had been an aircraft mechanic for the Army Air Force in World War II. David soaked up Barney’s stories about the fighting in Germany, including the one about how he was wounded.

Barney’s unit had stopped to rest and he was making a hot drink over a fire using snow and instant coffee. Suddenly the Germans attacked with mortars and Barney badly injured his leg while diving to take cover, tearing tendons and ligaments.

A thin 6-foot-2, Barney still walks with a limp and has had surgery on the leg several times. Every now and then, he said, his leg will give out, as though someone’s tackled him from behind, and he’ll fall down.

He retains the big, wide smile you see in his Army photos. His dog, a fluffy white Maltese named SheShe, is now his constant companion, always nearby, on his lap or ready to pounce on a tennis ball tossed her way.

David worked in Army intelligence for four years. He left the service in 1970 and spent his career with the railroad. Like Barney, he raised two children, and he’s been married almost 50 years.

He and Barney have been friends since he moved to the neighborhood about 25 years ago. But in the last few years since David’s retirement, they’ve had more time for each other. David visits two or three times a week, more often if Barney needs him for something, like setting the thermostat. His eyesight is not good, so he can’t see the words and numbers very well.

Mostly they just get together to hang out, David said. “I’ll walk down just to visit with him, drink a beer and talk about current events.”

David is the first to say he’s only one of many of Barney’s friends in the neighborhood.

Another of them is a computer whiz, whom Barney calls when he can’t get his desktop to work.

Yet another checks every night to see if Barney has left his garage open or his lights on. That’s usually a sign he’s fallen asleep watching television. That neighbor will then call David, who will saunter down to Barney’s and help his friend into bed.

Someone threw a Christmas party recently, and most of the neighborhood showed up, including Barney. It wouldn’t have been the same without him, David said.

Barney felt well enough to go to France for the 75th anniversary of D-Day in June — the first time he’d done so. He was asked to lay a wreath at the entrance of the American cemetery in Normandy.

He walked among the rows of headstones with white marble crosses and Stars of David. He was struck by how many of the dead remained unidentified.

Their headstones would say “Known but to God,’’ he said, his voice cracking.

As David and Barney sat in the living room trading stories, David mentioned that the last time Barney had gone to see his doctor, they’d talked about the dwindling number of World War II veterans still alive.

“He told his doctor on his last visit,” David said, “that he wants her to be able to claim that she treated the last living World War II veteran.”

“Yeah,” Barney said, laughing, his eyebrows jumping. David chuckled, too.

After all, neither is counting birthdays or marking time. On this day, they were just spending an easy afternoon together, enjoying each other’s company, a couple of old buddies.

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© 2019 The Dallas Morning News